School Lunches from Fattest and Fittest Counties Compared – But Is It Fair to Do So?

Over the weekend a friend shared on TLT’s Facebook page this post from The Daily, which compares school lunches from the fattest and fittest counties in the nation, Greene County, AL and Routt County, CO, respectively.

According to The Daily, the school food in Routt County, where only 14% of adults are obese, includes “seasonal vegetables, fresh-baked bread and hot entrees” and  “[a]ll lunches feature a salad bar stocked with seasonal fruits and vegetables, as well as a deli station with fresh-baked bread and deli meats sliced in-house.”  Meanwhile, in Greene County, where 48% of adults are obese, kids are served “chicken nuggets, hot dogs, Salisbury steak and sloppy joes.”

Not surprising, I suppose.  But, still, this comparison really irked me.

First of all, nowhere does the piece mention that the full price for an elementary school lunch in Steamboat Springs is $3.00 (with the price rising to $4.00 in high school), whereas last year the full price for an elementary school lunch in Greene County was a mere $1.25 (though, due to changes in the federal law, that price will go up next year.)  This price differential clearly plays a role in the ability of Steamboat Springs to craft its impressive menu of “Maple-tamarind glazed chicken over Jasmine rice” and “Thai chicken curry over jasmine rice with full salad bar.”

Second, let’s consider the cultural factors at play.  In a chart at the end of the post, The Daily discloses that the median income in Greene County is $22,000 and over 80% of the population is African-American.  Routt County, home to affluent Steamboat Springs, has a population that’s 96% white with a median income of over $60,000.   So is it any wonder that parents in Routt County demand — and students are much more likely to accept — food which, in the words of The Daily, is “worthy of a chic, health-conscious restaurant in New York or Los Angeles?”

Finally, the implicit point of the exercise seems to be to indict Greene County schools for perpetuating the obesity in their communities.  But the Greene County menu at the end of the post didn’t strike me as that egregious, all things considered.   There does seem to be an over-reliance on potatoes (and, thanks to the successful lobbying of potato growers, the new federal school meal standards won’t prevent that practice from continuing), and the entrees tend to fall into the “doctored junk food” category of pizza, chicken nuggets and hot dogs.  That said, kids in Greene County are also offered fresh fruit and vegetable sides like carrot sticks, apple slices, orange wedges and fresh grapes.  Here in Houston ISD, the nation’s seventh largest district, we were thrilled when such items started appearing on our menus a while back.

So while there’s clearly room for improvement in Greene, it feels unfair to compare it to a county which places an unusually high value on exceptional school food, has a student population better conditioned to accept such food, and has affluent parents who can pay the higher price tag that comes with it.


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  1. mommm!!! says

    When we have a system that relies on artificially low prices for food (which are really food commodities), perpetuated by the industrial food giants, this are the outcomes that can be expected. People don’t have equal access to food. And as long as there are people that can’t afford to eat their choices will only be what is the cheapest. What people don’t realize is that we all, nationwide, pay for “what’s cheapest” with our taxpayer dollars. Food is a basic right, not a privilege for those that can afford it, which is a social perception that needs to change.

  2. Chris says

    I also wonder whether high elevation has anything to do with Colorado’s low rate of obesity. We were in Estes Park recently and noticed that we just didn’t seem to have as much appetite as we did down in the flatlands. Some quick Googling reveals that I’m not the first person to wonder about it.

    • Karen says

      Colorado is filled with people who moved there because they love to live outdoors. The state brags about being the fittest because they are. Your loss of appetite at higher altitudes would have passed after a week or so, once you adjusted to the elevation.

  3. says

    I suspect this is another example of looking at very complex issues (i.e. child obesity) by breaking them down into component pieces (e.g. the menu in the school cafeteria, or the amount of exercise conducted per day, or the local socio-economic conditions, or what phase of the moon it is) and trying to reach some sort of valid conclusion. As you noted, Bettina, there are numerous factors which have to be considered – this is a complex system we are dealing with, and it doesn’t lend itself to nice, tidy little answer-bites. I wish our “investigative reporters” would realize this (though one must give them credit for even bothering to try.)


    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      FYI, the Daily reporter and I later tweeted about this. She said that it was her goal only to provide a snapshot of the food, and she felt our discussion here was “spot on.”

  4. says

    Supporting what you have said about the discrepancy in median income, only 8% of students in the Steamboat Springs district qualify for free or reduced price lunch
    whereas in Greene County, 93% qualify.
    (The info is found in the section called “students”.)

    More on the various facotrs to consider when trying to figure out if one district can do what another district does

  5. Emilio B. says

    Or perhaps the intention here with this story of “comparisons” is how much more we need to educate both parents and their children in the United States on the whole aspect of consuming food & beverages and what those effects are to not only our body/health but to us as a society (i.e. COST$$). The notion “Bigger is Better” along with the lack of “movement” in our society is certainly among those issues we need to confront. After all, is that not one of the main debates about what the “Obamacare” is all about – Obesity and how much it’s costing us?


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